Travelers spending time in Tanzania should make every effort possible to visit Zanzibar, the fabled island just 35 miles offshore from the mainland. Even if you only have a couple of days to spare after going on safari — or if you want to escape the congestion and traffic of Dar es Salaam — that’s okay. 48 hours in Zanzibar is just enough time to get a glimpse of what makes the island special: the winding alleyways of Stone Town; the decadent white sand beaches; and the famed spice plantations.
At least one day should be spend exploring the heart of old town Stone Town. The most efficient way to see this UNESCO World Heritage city is on a walking tour: arrange a guide through your hotel, and let the centuries of history and the panoply of influences — especially Arabic, Goan and Swahili — unfold before you.
Begin your stroll near the waterfront, which is where many of the town’s most famous landmarks are located. One of the first buildings you will come across is the Beit al Ajaib, or House of Wonders. Originally built as a sultan’s palace, it now houses the Zanzibar Museum of History and Culture, with displays on local Swahili life and culture. Nearby is the Palace Museum, which was also originally a residence for the sultan’s family, and now is a museum focusing on the era of the sultanate. Just next door to the House of Wonders is the Old Fort, with its massive stone walls. You can visit sections of the original fort, including one part that has been converted to an open-air theater. There are also shops and a restaurant inside, and traditional dancing and drumming performances.
Opposite the Old Fort, directly overlooking the water, are Zanzibar’s famous Forodhani Gardens. Renovated several years ago, they now have a new, more modern look, but still serve as a center of local social life. The best time to visit is from about 5pm onwards, as Zanzibaris and visitors alike gather to watch the sun set over the water, chat and sample food from the many vendors who set up tables each evening heaped with local delicacies. These include grilled seafood kebabs, soft, thick mkate wa ufuta (sesame naan bread), filling Zanzibari pizzas (a concoction consisting of a chapati around a filling of minced, spiced meat and egg) and much more.
A short walk from Forodhani Gardens is the Nasur Nurmohamed Dispensary, on Mizingani Road. Built in 1887, it’s one of Stone Town’s most impressively restored buildings. It was made from traditional Zanzibari coral rag and limestone, but also has Indian-style stained glass and Victorian carved wood balconies that wrap around the entire structure. It’s a great symbol of the multi-cultural heritage of the city.
Next, make your way away from the waterfront, and wander into the Hurumzi neighborhood. Here you’ll find countless small shops offering a tempting array of textiles, carvings, and paintings that beg to be taken home as souvenirs. Artfully woven kikoi fabric — used to make the wraps worn by many locals — is a specialty. Baskets of spices are another good buy, containing samples of the cloves, cinnamon, vanilla and other spices which gave the Zanzibar Archipelago its historical reputation as the “Spice Islands.”
Finish your stroll in Mkunazini, at the majestic Anglican Cathedral. Next door to the cathedral are slave holding chambers that serve as a sobering reminder of one of the darker sides of Zanzibar’s history.
With just a couple of days on the island, you may want to limit yourself to the Stone Town area. If so, consider spending your second day relaxing at one of the many spas. =Here, you will be surrounded by hints of Arabia, India and the islands=themselves, especially as most spas use locally-sourced spices, herbs, seaweed and other organic products. Most upmarket hotels have their own spa, but if yours doesn’t, staff will be able to recommend a good one for you. Some popular choices include Cinnamon Spa, Mrembo Spa, and the spa at the Seyyida Hotel.
However, if you do have time to explore outside of Stone Town, there are many other adventures to be had. Almost all hotels can arrange spice tours, during which you can visit nearby plantations and see (and often sample) the spices at the source. In addition to smelling and sampling the spices, most also offer the chance to taste some of Zanzibar’s many tropical fruits — mangos, jackfruits and more — and to buy spices to take home with you. The tours take two to three hours, with pick-ups and drop-offs at your hotel. Costs average from US$15 to US$30 per person.
If you’d prefer to experience Zanzibar’s famed Indian Ocean beaches and tropical ambiance, there are several places just a short drive to the east or north. A favorite is Matemwe, which is about two hours northeast of Stone Town. Matemwe boasts a long, wide beach and fine, powdery sand, and is a popular kitesurfing spot. Matemwe is also a good base for diving, and both instruction and equipment rental are available through Zanzibar One Ocean, a PADI five-star center with branches all over the island. And just offshore from Matemwe is tiny Mnemba Island, which offers outstanding snorkeling.
Kiwengwa, south of Matemwe, features a string of lovely beaches, plus attractions such as beachside horseback riding and fascinating underground caves. Jambiani, southeast of Stone Town, has a wide beach backed by a large selection of mostly moderately and budget-priced hotels. Just up from Jambiani is Paje, which is one of East Africa’s kitesurfing hubs. North of Matemwe, at Zanzibar’s northeastern tip, is East Nungwi, with a narrow strip of beach and some lovely upmarket enclaves.
Keep in mind that tidal differences around most of Zanzibar are huge, with the waters receding great distances at low tide. Swimming is generally only possible at high tide.
- At least half a dozen flights daily go between Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, with most departing from and arriving at Dar es Salaam International Airport’s Terminal 1 (the “old” terminal). The flight takes about 20 minutes.
- The fast ferry from Dar es Salaam takes about two to two-and-a-half hours. It leaves from the Dar Seaport and arrives at the Zanzibar Ferry Terminal in Stone Town. There are normally four ferries per day, and the cost is about US$25 each way.
- The ferry is the classic way to reach the island, but most visitors these days arrive via small plane. The short flight offers some lovely vistas approaching the island as the water changes hue from dark blue to turquoise to aqua around the small islets offshore.
- Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most upmarket hotels, but it is best to confirm this in advance. ATMs, for accessing Tanzanian currency with your credit card, are found in Zanzibar Town.
Karen Elowitt contributed to this article.